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Freight Center Merits Study

by Editors
The Olympian, July 16, 2006

Port commissions in Olympia and Tacoma should spend the next year investigating the pros and cons of building a major freight distribution center in the Maytown area of Thurston County.

Olympia's three port commissioners are scheduled to take up the issue Monday night, with Tacoma port commissioners meeting Tuesday evening. A yearlong study will provide answers to key questions, such as how many trains will move in and out of downtown Olympia and whether rail shipments of logs and other cargoes will reduce the number of trucks traveling to the port docks.

It's encouraging that Olympia Port commissioners are talking publicly about the freight distribution center - or logistics center - early in the decision-making process. That's not the path commissioners followed with the contract with Weyerhaeuser for additional log shipments. That contract was a done deal when commissioners sprung that decision on unsuspecting constituents.

The property in question is a 745-acre former munitions manufacturing site 2.5 miles east of Interstate 5, not far from Millersylvania State Park. The property is adjacent to two railroad tracks, one operated by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company and the other by Tacoma Rail Mountain Division.

The ports would need about 300 acres for cargo storage and transportation. The remaining acres could be occupied by distribution and manufacturing centers, rail maintenance and service shops, operation and dispatch centers and rail-dependent manufacturing. Under the proposal, Tacoma would purchase the property, with Port of Olympia commissioners taking the lead on site planning and permitting.

The freight distribution center is not an allowed use under current zoning, so it would require land use changes by Thurston County commissioners. It would take three to five years to develop the project if a decision was reached to proceed.

But that's putting the cart before the horse. The first priority is to study the proposal and determine its effect on the community.

Similar facilities around the country integrate rail and truck service with loading, distribution and storage in one location. Port of Olympia officials say there is a need for such a facility and that numerous consultant studies have recommended this type of facility to meet future growth needs in the Puget Sound region. This plan fits with the governor's call for ports to cooperate and fits with this newspaper's call for smart partnerships.

The goal of a distribution center is to move cargo more quickly by using rail instead of trucks. Rail shipments are certainly less intrusive than trucks moving up and down the freeway.

The Port of Tacoma could sort container cargo at the Maytown site for direct transportation to the docks in Tacoma. A spur line leads directly to the port's property on Budd Inlet.

One of the possibilities would be to use the rails rather than trucks when Weyerhaeuser moves its log export business from Tacoma to Olympia. Plans call for an additional 80 log trucks a day on Olympia streets. A logistics park could be critical to Olympia if it means removing truck traffic from city streets.

But all of this needs further study to see whether the pros outweigh the cons. Commissioners in Tacoma and Olympia should authorize a study in their separate meetings this week.

Freight Center Merits Study
The Olympian, July 16, 2006

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